Rehearsal For World War II

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In the fall of 1937, at the entrance of almost any first- or second-class post office in the United States, one was apt to see a Navy poster that showed a fresh-faced young sailor striding up the gangplank of a battleship. Over his shoulder were slung hammock and seabag. On his face was the bright expectation of travel and adventure. And in his pocket, presumably, was the fifty-four dollars a month that a first-class seaman could make in those days.

The picture was an appealing one—but the artist could have made it even more so if he had been depicting a sailor of the United States Navy Yangtze River Patrol. Such a sailor might have been tricked out in natty English walking shorts, a pith helmet, and a full beard. The artist could have shifted the staggering load of canvas on the young man’s shoulder to the back of a Chinese coolie following a respectful distance behind. And instead of a battleship, the sailor would have been climbing aboard a gleaming white and mahogany craft nobby enough to run with the brokers’ yachts at a Harvard-Yale boat race.

In 1937, except for the dwindling White House flotilla, the Yangtze Patrol was the most comfortable assignment in the Navy. The treaty right to patrol Chinese rivers and territorial waters had been won by the United States, France, Britain, and Russia after they had jointly subdued the terrorist mandarin Yeh in 1858. The duties of the Yangtze Patrol were simple: to watch over the safety and protect the rights and property of American businessmen and missionaries in China. The Patrol had done the job with diligence—and, at times, with cost. It was, however, a job that had its rewards. The quarters, with few exceptions, were light, airy, and unusually comfortable—with bunks for all hands instead of hammocks. Beards were allowed (no other U.S. Navy ships or stations tolerated anything bushier than a pencil-line mustache). Gunboat cooks took great pride in the tables they set: the menus were varied and even exotic, for food prices ashore—graft included—were so universally low that even the most zealous supply officer finally had to wink at the padded cost figures; there was hardly any point in trying to shake up the whole Oriental system for the sake of the Navy’s Bureau of Supplies and Accounts.

U.S.S. Panay, named after one of the Philippine Islands, had been built in 1927 at Shanghai, along with her sister ship, the Oahu. They were two of six gunboats that replaced an ancient fleet of converted yachts and refurbished Spanish-American War prizes. Both ships were specially designed for the Yangtze; they sat low in the water and their drafts were shallow—about five and a half feet. Their bottoms were completely flat, without a trace of a keel. They were likely to roll helplessly in a seaway, but they could ground on a Yangtze sandbar as harmlessly as a soapdish, and could be dragged or floated off equally easily. Seen at a distance running at flank speed in the river, one of the gunboats might appear to be a sinking ship, with decks awash and a captain intent on driving her under in one last, grand gesture. The Panay was lightly armed for a ship of war, but gunboats as a class were spawned by a certain damned-if-we-care-if-the-natives-are-restless approach to imperialism; they were intended to fight against an enemy seriously outgunned from the start. On a platform forward and slightly below the bridge, and also on the open upper deck above the stern, the Panay carried 3-inch guns mounted behind steel splinter shields thick enough to deflect rifle fire even at close range; sniping from the shore by bandits was a common danger. Both guns were capable of elevating to a vertical position for defense against attacking aircraft.

The Panay’s upper deck looked like a spacious tropical veranda—except for the presence of light .30 caliber Lewis antiaircraft machine guns. These were also behind heavy, oblong splinter shields that looked a bit like upended water troughs. There were no sights: a good gunner had to have a skeetshooter’s instinct for a wing shot.

The Panay was built for four officers, forty-nine enlisted men, and a Chinese crew of about a dozen. Behind the bridge the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander James Joseph Hughes, had a well-appointed two-room suite that served as bedroom, sitting room, dining room, and office. Nearby was a single stateroom occupied by the ship’s doctor, Lieutenant (j.g.) Clark Grazier, and the radio room, with transmitters for contact with other ships of the Patrol and with the cruiser Augusta, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, at Shanghai.

The chief petty officers lived in comparably pleasant circumstances on the upper deck astern, the rest of the crew in less capacious quarters on the main deck below. The wardroom and all quarters for officers and enlisted men had big, real windows instead of portholes.